Life: the cosmic mistake?

Whatever your outlook on the reality of climate change, global warning or the general deterioration of people and the place we live in, it’s obvious that humanity is paddling rapidly up shit’s creek.

The question for me: Is it mostly our doing, a side effect of chance, or the fore-ordained endpoint of evolution? And secondarily, if evolution, what exactly do I mean by evolution in this context?

Through SETI and other efforts, we’ve been listening for the telltale evidence of  intelligent life for close to 60 years and have documented exactly zilch. The explanations for this empty-room resonance range from “We haven’t been looking long enough” to “We haven’t been looking widely enough” (only a tiny segment of the sky has been monitored) to “We might not recognize a truly alien broadcast” to “Maybe they’re intelligent enough to keep quiet” to “There just ain’t nobody there” (with its fundamentalist variant, “We’re all that matters; God just tacked up the rest of the universe for us to gaze at”).

I haven’t seen the following possibilities spelled out (though I’m sure they’re around).

First, maybe we’re just not properly aligned temporally. It took billions or years for the earth to coalesce, hundreds of millions to bring forth life. Our species has been around for only a couple hundred thousand years, has latched onto the electromagnetic spectrum only in the past two centuries, and has tried to reach the mythical others “out there” for the last half century. Maybe tomorrow (if we’re still around) we may a) give up the effort or b) discover a simpler, more direct method of contact.

So let’s turn that around and think about who might be broadcasting to us: First, they’d be doing so from thousands to billions of years in the past. What’s the chance that they would not only have  reached our level of discovery back then, but that they would be broadcasting during exactly the right narrow time frame to interact with us, today? Or that we’d be able to pick up a broadcast diffused to near spectral invisibility? Or that we’d recognize it for what it was? Or the opposite possibility: that we’re johnny-come-latelies who have already been passed by. Whichever way, to receive cosmic evidence of buddies we’d have to be damned lucky spatially and temporally – and we’d also have to be paying close attention, not watching Netflix.

That’s one kind of possibility for our apparent lonesomeness in the big, indifferent universe. But lately I’ve come to wonder: What if life just doesn’t work? Not that it was intended other than the way it turned out – since I don’t believe in the Great Intender – but that life is inherently subject to failure. (I’m talking about organic life here; Linda likes to posit the possibility of life so totally alien that we would have no way to characterize it outside science fiction – and who’s to say that’s less likely than our cobbled chemical stew?)

Evolution on earth has been a horridly beautiful mess. Each individual is the behavioral result of a singular collection of synapses that remains throughout its life at war with its next-door-neighbor’s mass of synapses. Both individuals and species mutate randomly, become diseased or fail in their environment. And die.

Every living thing above a single-celled organism depends on eating some other living thing. Now, that doesn’t seem nice. It’s also inefficient and incompetent. But… so is everything on the cosmic level. Quantum particles wink in and out of existence. Stars create planets – their children – then eat them. Black holes gobble their neighbors. Galaxies collide and unleash a billion years of chaotic aftermath. And unless the current math is wrong, the entire universe will expand forever, pissing off into nothing. 

Looked at this way, life is wholly consistent with physical law – and at the same time a rattle-trap, blundering sideshow. Like the rest of the universe as it races into oblivion, life will attenuate, diffuse, vanish. And with it, its absurd side-effect – our dithering sense of importance.

This week the snow is mystically gorgeous, the woodstove is providing joyous heat, the cat’s sleeping on the printer and has learned to forsake the litter box to shit outside, and we live in one of the last places on earth disaster is likely to strike. So I’m not meaning to complain. Just looking at the other side of the coin.

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